Public Image Ltd.
The 1980s in suburbia was the equivalent of a long ago and faraway galaxy. The stifling culture of conformity, the sanitized versions of reality, the shiny news cars and big plastic homes. My friends liked sports and heavy metal, they dreamed of the muscle cars they would own. They thought Gino Vanelli’s ‘Black Cars’ was a boss track. They had mullets and feathered hair. They wore tank tops in the summer and knock off Vuarnet sunglasses, with the neon arms. Their fathers went to work, their mothers stayed home. There was no culture of dissent, because dissent wasn’t cool, man. Conformity was. But I didn’t really fit in, my home life was a mess, and our house wasn’t big and plastic, my mom worked as well as the Old Man. I did not have a mullet, though I did have feathered hair for a nano-second. I didn’t like muscle cars. I also didn’t love metal, though I could dig it. Hell, my first concert was Twisted Sister opening for Iron Maiden at the old Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver. I didn’t really like Gino Vanelli. And I didn’t like conformity.
So I searched far and wide for the alternative. Some of this was easier to find, when bands like U2 and INXS were on the radio, they were this massive break from the steady diet of Bruce Springsteen and cock rock bands like Zeppelin. I didn’t have older siblings to hand me down music, and all my cousins lived in Montréal. And in the mid-80s we didn’t have cable TV, so I couldn’t watch MuchMusic.
When I was younger, like 11 or 12, my friend Grant and I would occasionally explore the lower registers of music. He did have cable and Much, so this was possible. And this is how we discovered punk beyond the Clash and the Sex Pistols. As I got older, my buddy Aaron, with whom I played football, also got into some of the nastier stuff, like Suicidal Tendencies and DRI, and Dayglo Abortions. And somehow, when I was 10 or 11, I got turned onto hip hop before all the jocks in my school became obsessed with Run DMC and Aerosmith doing ‘Walk This Way’ or the Beastie Boys’ early meathead phase.
Eventually we got cable when I was 13 or 14, and all of the sudden, I had access to Much, at least when the Old Man wasn’t home or awake, as he spent nearly all his time staring at the Idiot Box. And suddenly a new world opened. Late one night in 1987, Much played this video from something called Public Image Ltd., and I recognized the singer, he was the guy from the Sex Pistols, but this was a brand new bag. There was this liquidified, rolling bassline, and then this high, shimmery, slashing guitar, and then John Lydon’s voice. The lyrics were brilliant, and spoke of alienation. Alienation and I were old friends by now. I was a kid from Montréal marooned in the Vancouver suburbs, I was suspicious for any possible French Canadianness, made worse by the fact I cheered for the Montréal Canadiens and Montréal Expos, not the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Blue Jays or the Seattle Mariners. I did not see eye-to-eye with the Old Man, and I wanted nothing more than to get the fuck outta there.
By the time I was 15, I was riding the 160 bus from Port Moody into Vancouver, and I discovered the row of record shops on Seymour St. There were the big stores, Sam the Record Man and A&B Sound, there was even the generally useless A&A Records and Tapes. But there was also Track Records and a few more. In the fall of 1988, I was in Track, flipping through the vinyl, and I found PiL’s First Issue, the album with ‘Public Image’ on it. I shelled out my $6.98 and took it home. It did not disappoint.
First Issue is not accessible music, it is not warm and fuzzy. It is angry, vitriolic, it is a fuck you to punk, to the Pistols, to Lydon’s public image, essentially. It is not easy listening.
The first track is ‘Theme,’ and it was something very different than what I expected. MuchMusic, in its ignorance, had labelled the video I saw as ‘Theme.’ This was not that song. Starting off with scream, and then Wobble’s loping bass, Levene’s strangulated guitars and my fellow Canadian Jim Walker’s drums, this goes into territory I had never even considered possible. The bassline was so heavy in my headphones the first time I heard this song, I thought my brain would explode. Heavy on the flanger, Levene’s guitar is all over the place and Walker is murdering his drum kit. And then Lydon, his entire approach here, his vocals, his delivery, was an announcement this was something new. His lyrics with the Pistols had been vitriolic and a fuck you to society, here he was introspective, screaming over the track, growling, howling, and chanting ‘I wish I could die’ over and over again. What the actual fuck, I thought? I was hooked.
It got better. The second track was spoken word, Lydon reciting a poem about, well, religion:
Stained glass windows keep the cold outside
While the hypocrites hide inside
With the lies of statues in their minds
Where the Christian religion made them blind
Where they hide
And prey to the God of a bitch spelled backwards is dog
Not for one race, one creed, one world
But for money
Absurd.Do you pray to the Holy Ghost when you suck your host
Do you read who’s dead in the Irish Post
Do you give away the cash you can’t afford
On bended knees and pray to lord.
Fat pig priest
He takes the money
You take the lies
This is religion and Jesus Christ
This is religion cheaply priced
This is bibles full of libel
This is sin in eternal hymn
This is what they’ve done
This is your religion
The apostles were eleven
Now there’s a sod in HeavenThis is religion
There’s a liar on the altar
The sermon never falter
This is religion
By the time I heard this, it had only been a few years since my mom broke with the Catholic Church, and the guilt was firmly entrenched within me. I couldn’t believe this, I couldn’t believe someone could be so sacrilegious. Even today, a lifetime and galaxies away from that day in October 1988, I am still uncomfortable with blatant sacrilegion. But then we go directly from the spoken word ‘Religion I’ to the hardcore post-punk ‘Religion II.’ Wobble’s bass in the right channel, the guitar as well in the intro. And then Lydon is in the left channel, chanting the poem this time. It is only after the first verse that the whole song, music and vocals, explodes into both channels briefly before we’re back to music on the right, vocals on the left.
In Pil, Levene developed a new way of playing the guitar. His guitars were jagged and ragged, played on metallic guitars. In essence, he invented the post-punk style of guitar, and his disciples could be heard across the gamut of the genre from Sisters of Mercy to U2. I once read an interview with Peter Hook of New Order, who himself initiated a style of bass playing that became the norm of the post-punk scene, jokingly suggest he should sue all the bassists who copied him and got rich. Levene could do the same.
‘Annalisa,’ the next track was arresting. It was about a young German girl, said to be possessed, left to starve to death by her parents. This is perhaps the heaviest song on the album, centred around Wobble’s bass and Walker’s pounding drums. Levene’s guitar work here is particularly clear, less reliant on the flanger. And the lyrics. Jesus.
Think I’m proud to be your enemy
Take your hands off of me
You’re worse than the thing that possessed me
They way they were
The way they should have been
AnnalisaAnnalisa was 15 years
Stole her soul
But I hear no tears
Ever been alone
And heard the voice
Not your own
I’ve seen those fears
AnnalisaSomehow you used ignorance for sense
Melodrama in your eyes
All concern rests with the dead
AnnalisaAnnalisa had no escape
Starved to death in a waiting room
Cheap concern and rosary beads
Did not solve screaming needs
Finally, at the start of Side 2, after I flipped the vinyl over the song that had caught my attention on Much: ‘Public Image.’ Even now, 32 years after I first heard it, 42 years since it was recorded, this song is still arresting for me, it remains, as far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest songs ever written. It is also a massive middle finger to the image of Johnny Rotten and the construction of Lydon’s alter ego in the media:
Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello.
Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha.
You never listen to word that I said
You only seen me
For the clothes that I wear
Or did the interest go so much deeper
It must have been
The colour of my hair.Public image.
What you wanted was never made clear
Behind the image was ignorance and fear
You hide behind his public machine
Still follow the same old scheme.Public image.
Two sides to every story
Somebody had to stop me
I’m not the same as when I began
I will not be treated as property.Public image.
Two sides to every story
Somebody had to stop me
I’m not the same as when I began
It’s not a game of Monopoly.Public image.
Public image you got what you wanted
The Public Image belongs to me
It’s my entrance
My own creation
My grand finale
My goodbyePublic image.
The track rides Wobble’s bass, which begins the song, before Walker’s drums come in, and Lydon is looking around to see if anyone is listening, ‘Hello, hello…’ And then Levene’s guitars just shred. This is the only radio friendly track on the album, and the first song recorded, in the summer of 1978 at Advision Studious, London, with John Leckie engineering, though overdubs were added at Wessex Studios. Lydon’s vocals are notable here, slightly alienated from the music and delivered through a dub-style Space Echo. This track was also notable because it was Wobble’s show musically.